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Bob Franken: The photo op competition
Bob Franken.jpg
Bob Franken is an Emmy winning, syndicated columnist. - photo by File photo

New T-shirt slogan for Democratic members of Congress as President Joe Biden headed out for the G-20 and U.N. climate change summits: “My Grandpa Joe went to Europe, and all I got was this lousy framework.”

Last week, when Biden flew off to conquer the economic, climate and pandemic worlds, he left Congress behind to fill in the blanks of his own domestic economic social program. Now, with a price of $1.75 trillion (that’s with a “T”!), it can hardly be called bare bones. But it had already been stripped from $3.5 trillion by abandoning major progressive goals like paid family leave and many aspects of climate change. The combined infrastructure legislation and what’s left of “Build Back Better” social infrastructure rebuilding are being finessed with compromise promises to revisit the rejects in the months ahead, before the midterm elections, when the president’s party might lose control of Congress and it all goes kablooie for him. He effectively has lost control of Congress anyway, with a few “moderates” able to gum up the liberals’ hopes.

The names Manchin, Sinema and Gottheimer are not about to set the lefties’ hearts a-flutter, but hey, that’s what legislation is all about.

President Biden made his decades of Washington experience a major selling point, and his own party might fail with a thud to deliver the goods beyond the face-saving stage. He might end the year with nothing more than the knowledge that when you reach for the stars, you can get badly burned. The new political year will be cluttered with hundreds of midterm campaigns, which are more about control of the House and Senate and less about governing.

Between now and then, we are treated to the venomous debate over whether to govern at all, as some federal agencies will flat shut down if the Republicans and Democrats can’t figure out some cease-fire in their war to agree to a spending plan for the year. Not only that, but the “it’ll never happen” rejection of the nation’s borrowing authority could, in fact, happen in about six weeks if some sort of kamikaze group of House members or senators recklessly miscalculates and causes all manner of fiscal chaos worldwide by not voting to raise the debt ceiling, irretrievably embarrassing the United States of America, as if Donald Trump wasn’t enough.

I wouldn’t want to be Joe Biden as he travels to summits overseas.

Other world leaders will relish being able to remind him that the USA was a former world power.

Those other world leaders being, for instance, the prime minister of Luxembourg or Prince Albert of Monaco.

But while Joe has been testily negotiating to repair the international damage of the Trump administration, accompanied by first lady Dr. Jill Biden, Trump trumped him in the photo op competition by dragging former first lady Melania to a World Series game in Atlanta, and even persuaded her to join the crowd in the bad taste Tomahawk Chop. Democrats and Native American advocates would never participate in that.

Advantage Trump (I realize that’s a mixed sports metaphor). Trump showed that in Deep South Georgia he doesn’t have to be as invisible as he needs to be in suburbanized Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin’s strategy has been to deny that Donald Trump exists.

So while Grandpa Joe has been cavorting around Europe, the Democrats have been hard at work collecting souvenirs for his return ... slogging through the details of the skeletal framework Biden left behind. No matter how successful they have been in avoiding the pitfalls of climate change, for instance, they face a political climate that is full of headwinds.

Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.

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